I’m walking through my office to retrieve my lunch. Outside, a steady drizzle onto the melting snow from weeks ago has created a dense fog on the streets. It’s a dreary day in Pennsylvania, but about par for the winter course in the southern Susquehanna Valley.
And then I hear it: Sssshhhhh…mup. Sssshhhhh…mup. Sssshhhhh…mup, with every step I take on the laminate tile floor. And on the concrete. Sssshhhhh…mup…
“What the hell is that noise?” I said to myself as I grabbed lunch and headed back to my desk.
Suddenly, it dawned on me what that noise was. There was a hole in the bottom of my Keen Siskiyou hiking boots. That would certainly help explain why my feet feel damp, too, I thought. Back at my desk, I investigated a little more, contorting my lower leg and ankle so I could see the bottom of my shoe. I didn’t want to torture my colleagues by taking off my shoes and gassing them out of the office.
Sure enough, there it was: a quarter-inch hole on the heel of my left foot. Sometime in the last several months, a nub from the tread on my hiking boots had broken off. After six years, the sole was worn enough for that flaw to break open to the mid-sole air pockets and now I had a micro-suction effect happening every time my feet got wet.
I grimaced as I began examining the rest of my shoes. And I took stock of the damage that had accumulated in the last half decade: A small hole on the top of my right boot through the outer nylon layer; the sole of that boot beginning to separate again from the leather and nylon upper; separations of the same sort on the other boot; separations I had repaired with super glue, reopening; an exquisite sewing repair job to the right tongue; and the list of flaws continued to pile up. But the open sole was finally the last straw.
I faced the music. As much as I loved these boots, both for their comfort and utilitarianism, it was time to buy a new pair.
I looked again at all those trail scars. Suddenly, I was a bit melancholy at the prospect of tying the laces together and throwing the boots into my closet to be used only for gardening and weed-trimming.
The sole separations are from hundreds of miles of bipedal locomotion over rocks, through mud, snow and hip-deep rivers. I’ve completed projects in a weekend with these boots, like the West Rim Trail, and been repeatedly skunked on others. Through sweltering Keystone summers and subzero winters, these soles carried me farther than I would’ve ever imagined six years ago.
The sew job on the tongue I did after a trip in which I put my boots too close to the fire to dry out. That was the same trip that I sank a canoe in rapids. The fire dried my boots, but melted the tongue. Luckily, I got them away soon enough to prevent permanent damage. The upshot? I figured out the best way (and worst way) to dry your boots next to a campfire. Also, how not to run rapids in a canoe. Good lesson.
The hole on the top right nylon was pure dumb luck sitting around the backyard campfire with friends. A coal popped and shot a small fireball onto my foot. I didn’t realize that’s where it went at first and the damage was done. One short slender hole. For about the past two years, that foot almost always gets wet first. I think it’s the combo of the separating sole. But, every time I look at that scar, I’ reminded of a really fun evening with people I love. I take them with me.
The lug hole, left heel, is a bit of a mystery, but quite possibly it happened last winter on the Chuck Keiper Trail. We broke plastic on that trip because it was so cold. The ground was cold and hard everywhere and I don’t remember that shoosh sound before that. Still, it’s hard to say. CKT is a tough trail especially in winter, but I do want to see more of it. It’s a project for the future. It always feels good to think of happy, tired evenings next to a fire with woodland sounds all around, a lullaby in cicada major and wind minor with the pop of a fire drum.
The frayed ends of the original laces, courtesy of my puppy who likes to grab my hiking boots and run through the kitchen chairs, evading me and laughing at her clever cat and mouse game. That’s right, I used a cat analogy. Deal with it, dog. (She hates cats. Typical.) But she does like when I lace up my boots and bring my pack out from downstairs. Oh boy! Those are the long-walk things! Hope dad brings cookies! is what she thinks, for sure. And she happily hikes on with us, absolutely loving every second. On our Super Bowl Sunday hike, every time I said “Wait for the boys,” she paused, sat down and watched them catch up. Good girl.
On the left inside of the upper, just above the heel, is a cut to the strap for the laces. I got that on a day hike along the AT’s Pulpit and Pinnacle overlooks section in Berks County, Pa. Dave Pidgeon wanted to show me that section when these boots were still new. The hike up to the Pulpit was quite rocky and I scuffed my ankle against some jagged edges. I remember thinking at the time, This is really going to suck if my new boots get a fatal flaw and I have to buy new ones. That’s also one of those trips when you look back and chuckle a bit. Dave and I were talking and as he was saying watch your step through these boulders, he tripped and slammed his shin into one of the suitcase-sized chunks of conglomerate. Sure enough, he had an egg-sized contusion and some blood. It was serious at the time, but I remember chuckling in my head, Oh! the irony! He was talking about sure footing!
And like with all new shoes, there were the blisters on that day hike, and the weekend hike on the Black Forest Trail. That first long-run of these shoes was a practice in on-trail foot surgery. I don’t think I’ve ever had that many blisters on both feet at the same time. I had Achilles blisters, heal blisters, big toe blisters, little toe blisters, blisters in the middle of my toes. The joke was on me. At lunch break, I lanced blisters, cleaned my feet, cut moleskin, and taped my foot like a mummy. Outside of ankle injuries from soccer, I don’t think I’ve ever used that much athletic tape on a foot. Certainly not because of blisters. That was the trip I learned Keens are true to their sizes. In the past, I had always worn two pairs of socks. But with the slim shoes, that was a mistake. My friend Josh sat chuckling as I operated on my feet. And only a day or two prior, I had assured him the shoes were broken in.
All of these scars are good memories that carried me forward even amidst the misery of the trail. On the worst days, those cold raining days when you’re seriously doubtful you’ll get a fire at the end. And on the good days, when the sun twinkled through the leaves overhead and every turn is a wonder slide show of birds and bugs and scenery worthy a Hudson School masterpiece.
I’ll miss these shoes, but the next pair are a blank slate. Tabula rasa, a canvas on which to paint new memories.